This is my periodic, if not highly sought-after, update on my Ukrainian war experience and the associated outlook. If it’s not your thing, you know where the trash can icon is. Given the length of this “chapter”, you may prefer to read this when you’re “on the clock” at work. Don’t use up any of your valuable free time.
If I missed you on chapter one, and you’re interested in the story of my departure from Ukraine once the war started, I can send you that, too. Feel free to share anything I send out with whomever or give me email addresses to add to the list.
I’m writing from unseasonably chilly Montenegro, where they seem to have waited for my arrival to deliver this winter’s coldest weather. Today’s high is near 10C, or 50F, the highest of our low highs lately. I’ve shortened my stay here to get back to matters in Ukraine, but have a full to-do list in getting the little hotel ready for yet another abnormal tourist season. Historically, we get lots of eastern Europeans here, but that will not be the case here or for some years to come, I think.
I’m getting quite a few requests for both analysis of the news coming out of Ukraine as well as how best to donate and help, and so I’ll address both of those. I think you all might like to read a little bit about the people I know; who is trapped in a hell they never imagined, who is holding out hope in western Ukraine, and who is confronted with where to go next in life, starting all over again from zero. So I’ve included some personal reality at the end.
Analysis of the conditions in Ukraine
I think we’re all a bit surprised, and probably even more impressed, at how well Ukraine is holding out against the amassed Russian forces. There seem to be several reasons explain this, and weren’t fully considered collectively by analysts a few weeks ago, among which:
Taking cities is hard, especially when the civilian population who remains is willfully part of the defense, as in every city in Ukraine in 2022.
Putin undoubtedly started to believe his own bs, and thought ethnic Russians in Ukraine would willfully become part of his new Russian empire. Ukrainians of all languages are resolved to win or resist and that spirit is widespread.
Obviously having state-of-the-art weapons to take down jets and punch explosive holes in tank turrets has taken any technological advantage away from Russia. Moreover, US/NATO intelligence is constantly being fed to the Ukrainian military.
I’m not sure how much the foreign legions are active now, but it looks like Ukraine will be adding 20,000 experienced fighters to its ranks, while Russia is losing theirs.
It’s also clear that many of the Russians are demoralized and really have no desire to be in this fight. This may also explain several bonehead tactics on the Russian side, like being unable to refuel vehicles at the head of a convoy. Even running convoys in single-file makes no sense, since taking out the lead vehicles with drones stalls the whole column.
Add to that poorly maintained vehicles on the Russian side, and you have inoperable expensive Russian hardware dotting the Ukrainian countryside. Maintaining heavy fighting vehicles is extremely critical and expensive, and something that can get overlooked when you’re trying to build reserves in anticipation of economic sanctions… and kleptocracies themselves are expensive.
Having Zelenskyy stay in Kyiv at the command has been extremely motivating.
While all this is encouraging, it has had one terrible consequence: indiscriminate shelling and bombing of Ukrainian cities. This will only get worse as it becomes normalized within the Russian ranks. As Ukraine’s response and the global sanctions become more daunting, Putin becomes wedged between a stupid war and his ego/legacy. The likely consequence of this is desperation and escalation.
Escalation has been Unavoidable
With that, I come back to the point many of you have heard me make in the last couple weeks: This idea that we can opt-out of escalating the war is a false choice, unless you’re just willing to give Putin everything. I’m not sure what “everything” is, but we do know it does not end at the borders of Ukraine. Putin has neither the time nor resources he had eight years ago, let alone going back to 2008 and the invasion of Georgia. If he’s going to achieve his goals, he’s going to use more and more harsh measures, and will not bother to cover them up (like he was partially able to do with Donbas and Crimea eight years ago).
I really believe the only choice we have is when we say “enough is enough”, and obviously any day that we wait, the damage and deaths will be more.
If you’re still not convinced – and I am not 100% convinced either – ask yourself why beating Putin one way or the other would keep him from going “too far” (as if he hasn’t already gone too far). If he has the capacity to escalate, isn’t he going to escalate based on his desire to achieve his goals and not based on the nature of his opposition?
I know these are not happy thoughts, but we’ve swept our Putin problem under the rug again and again and it has never gotten better. It has spared no lives over time, but rather cost us more lives and economic woes in the aggregate. Just think if we would have been honest with ourselves back in 2008 and moved to ban Russian oil and gas then.
Some Personal Stories
I’m sure you all know some folks who are directly touched by this, or that you’ve been able to learn about on the news or through social media. Still, I think the range of experiences is telling. I’d say about 50% of my regular contacts in L’viv are still in Ukraine, but the number is diminishing. My bestie there, Olia, is volunteering doing interpretation into Russian and English for national TV and radio for about 12 hours a day. She feels happily useful but exhausted.
Her partner, Ihor, just asked me the other night about the train connection to Budapest. His mother decided rather suddenly to leave Ukraine. This is a 50-something woman who speaks no other languages than Ukrainian and Russian, and is likely going to go to Dublin where Ihor’s sister lives, but has to navigate a wholly unfamiliar world without her husband or children and any useful languages. It’s not among the more traumatic stories, but can you imagine the helplessness the average person must be feeling? The upside is Olia’s worst-case scenario of living with her mother-in-law seems delayed for the foreseeable future. :)
I’ve other friends with whom I’m making arrangements in Hungary to get some temporary housing so they can figure out where they’re going to go. The options seem to run the range of the Visegrad countries to Chicago and London. Don’t worry, if I know of anyone coming your way, I’ve already offered up your sofa or guest bedroom… and I know you have them because I’ve probably used either myself over the years. :)
On the more painful end of the spectrum, my most recent ex- in L’viv was already out of Ukraine by the time the war started. She’s originally from the east, in the area between Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya, and her parents are stuck there despite our several offers to help them get out sooner. Over the last weekend they were stuck in their freezing basement with no running water, little heat, or electricity for three days. When they had the opportunity, they relocated to the centre of Zaporizhzhya, but since then contact has been lost. Fingers crossed.
Of my dozens of friends and contacts in Kyiv and Kharkiv, only one has remained at the hotel where she works in Kyiv. She’s given up going to the underground parking garage with the air raid sirens because she wasn’t sleeping at all. She hears artillery regularly, maybe no more than blocks away, but there has been no street fighting near her. Other folks have dispersed to southern or western Ukraine or outside of the country. Most are in Poland, but people are moving around trying to save dwindling savings. These folks have bank cards but not credit cards.
L’viv, a city normally of about 700,000 residents in 2021, has an internally displaced population of 200,000 that is pushing us up toward the 1-million mark, and some include folks I know from Kharkiv and Kyiv. Other folks are now in charming Chernivtsi, and some of you folks have helped Svit and his family and their effort to help others needing accommodation down there.
How can you help and what is my plan?
Now to the most commonly asked question that I get, and I’m developing some quality answers. I personally have been the beneficiary of the massive AirBNB community donations, receiving dozens of bookings for my apartment in L’viv from Americans, coast to coast. They all basically say the same thing: “We’re obviously not coming so please use this money as you see fit.” I get choked up just thinking about the amazing outpouring of generosity, yet I’m not sure this is the best way for you folks to contribute.
I think the easiest and most efficient way to donate is through the National Bank of Ukraine. At www.bank.gov.ua/en you’ll see the option to donate directly to the military or humanitarian needs. It accepts credit cards, so get those points and save some lives.
For those who want to consider a more personal, nearly hands-on experience with yours truly, I’m working on a supply run. What we’re hearing in L’viv is that we most need tents and such for our newest residents, as well as tactical helmets and bullet-proof vests. So, I am looking into vehicles on both sides of the border to collect and then distribute these necessities. Now, this may change in the coming weeks, but it will take me this long to gather the pricing, the necessary funds, contact the potential suppliers, and then put it all together. I plan to do a run to L’viv in about three weeks and then distribute out from there. In two weeks, we will reassess the needs and then try another run a few weeks later if we’re successful with this first one.
How can you help? If you have any insider knowledge on these items, let me know. I know that we’re already running up against some international trade restrictions on body armor and that many manufacturers are already booked months out, but I’m not giving up just yet. Now, if you’re already bored with whinging about high gasoline prices and really want to get your hands dirty, we can talk about helping out on the ground over here.
Beyond that, I’m thinking about the more distant future and reconstruction. I think there’s little doubt that Ukraine is going to come back stronger from this should we prevail in the streets of combat, and that’s only a matter of time. The US Congress and governments around the world are already planning on huge support, but there’s also going to be major private sector opportunities in housing and logistics/warehousing. Without going into the details here, I know several of you are in development yourselves and that the rest of you probably know folks who have invested in property. I just want to start pooling together folks who like the idea of investing (profitably) in Ukraine. My experience in the four years until now has been about a 20% return on US$ cash, even with the pandemic figured in. That’s obviously not the only priority in this case, but it’s certainly more sustainable if we can get folks interested in investing and not just donating to Ukraine.
Again, if you know folks who are interested in this subject, please forward this email. For the next update, I’m hoping to report on our supply run plans, but would love it if we could skip straight to the reconstruction subject.